Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems (ChEss)

A global study of the biogeography of deep-water chemosynthetic ecosystems and the processes that drive them.

Paul Tyler
Chris German
Eva Ramirez Llodra
Maria Baker

Project Leaders:

Paul Tyler, Ph.D., University of Southampton, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, United Kingdom

Chris German, Ph.D., Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

Eva Ramirez Llodra, Ph.D., Institut de Ciències del Mar, CSIC, Barcelona, Spain

Maria Baker, Ph.D., University of Southampton, National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, United Kingdom

Visit the ChEss website.



Directed from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) in the UK, the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM-CSIC), in Barcelona, Spain, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in the US, ChEss improved our knowledge of the biodiversity and biogeography of species from deep-water chemosynthetically-driven ecosystems at a global scale and increased our understanding of the processes that shape these communities. In order to achieve such ambitious goals, scientists from around the globe were brought together under the ChEss umbrella to coordinate their activities focusing on ChEss scientific objectives. ChEss addressed the main questions of the Census of Marine Life on diversity, abundance and distribution of marine species, within the realm of deep-water reducing environments such as hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, whale falls, sunken wood and areas of low oxygen that intersect with continental margins and seamounts. It was crucial to combine results from research on all these systems in order to understand the phylogeographic relationships amongst all deep-water chemosynthetic ecosystems.

ChEss had three components:

(1) ChEssBase: Geo- and bio-referenced relational online database (available on the ChEss website and integrated with OBIS) for all species from deep water chemosynthetic ecosystems. The InterRidge Biological Database was merged with ChEssBase. Progress was good and the database includes the majority of known species from hydrothermal vents, many from cold seeps and a few from whale falls - over 700 species in total. The database was expanded to include sample information - a useful tool for scientists and students to inform them of the whereabouts and availability of chemosynthetic biological samples held in major labs around the globe.

(2) Field Programmes: a long term phase of discovery and exploration to locate new chemosynthetic sites at key locations was identified by the ChEss steering committee after consultation with the wider community, to fill in the missing pieces of the biogeography puzzle. The selection of key locations (shown below) was based on a number of specific scientific questions related to the distribution, isolation, evolution and dispersal of deep-water species from chemosynthetically-driven systems.

Figure. Key target areas for the ChEss field programme. Priority areas (pink and blue): Area A, Equatorial Atlantic Belt region - comprising cold seeps off Costa Rica and the Gulf of Mexico, the Cayman Trough spreading centre, the Barbados accretionary prism, the continental margin off north east Brazil including the Amazon outflow, the MAR north and south of the equatorial Fracture Zones and the West African continental margin; Area B, the SE Pacific region - comprising the East Chile Rise; the Peru-Chile trench; the OMZ region on the Chilean continental margin, and coincident whale migration and wood-fall areas; Area C, the New Zealand region - comprising hydrothermal vents (north of NZ extending toward the Lau Basin), cold seeps (immediately north and south of NZ), high concentrations of whale populations in Kaikoro Canyon and extensive sunken wood and fjords (west coast, South Island). Area D, Arctic and Antarctic regions where research projects are being developed within the International Polar Year Initiative. Other specific areas: (yellow): 1 - the northern MAR between the Iceland and Azores hot-spots, 2 - the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, 3 - the Brazilian continental margin; 4 - the SW Indian Ridge, 5 - the Central Indian Ridge.

By the start of 2007, ChEss scientists had made new discoveries - the first Mid-Atlantic Ridge vents south of the equator, new vents on the SW Indian Ridge, the hottest and deepest vent sites ever discovered, new cold seeps off New Zealand, and many new species in the predicted order of 1 new description every 2 weeks, one of which, the "yeti crab", Kiwa hirsuta, has had massive media attention.

Kiwa hirsuta. Image courtesy of Ifremer/A. Fifis

(3) Outreach and Education: Numerous activities were launched and executed by ChEss to fulfill our goals for outreach and education. Multi-lingual educational webpages were developed, along with downloadable posters for schools. Various books and articles were published, with more and exciting projects still in the pipeline. Direct contact with the public via exhibitions and public talks also featured prominently throughout the lifetime of ChEss. Initiatives and collaborations were undertaken within the Census deep-sea projects (DESEO group) which created a great synergy and many products, including a Deeper than Light book, exhibits and other outreach activities.

ChEss in 2010 and Beyond

By the end of the Census in 2010, ChEss had made more discoveries at key locations - for example, from the funded ChEsSo project that explored for vents and seeps in the Antarctic, and exciting new findings from targeted sites on the Chile Margin. State-of-the-art technologies were developed, refined and tested, along with new sensors and analysis techniques. The ChEss programme left many legacies. The international scientific community as represented on the ChEss Scientific Steering Committee formed strong bonds over the Census timeframe and will continue to work together through the next decade and possibly beyond. This collaboration is vital in the continuation of the global research agenda that has been set up to decipher the fundamental questions of ecological functioning within chemosynthetic ecosystems upon different scales. It is envisaged that ChEss Scientific Steering Committee members will play key roles governing the future exploration and potential exploitation of these systems based upon sound scientific knowledge and owing to the strengthened collaborations made between scientists, industry and policy makers during the ChEss programme. ChEss researchers also work in collaboration with NASA to develop programmes for the search for life on planets or moons in outer space. Finally, one of the most important legacies of ChEss was that it significantly increased public awareness and interest about the biodiversity and functioning of the deep-sea.

Visit the multilingual scientific and educational Biogeography of Deep-Water Chemosynthetic Ecosystems web site